How do you adapt something as seminal, as beloved, and as dense as The Lord of the Rings into film? The easy answer is to cut liberally, but that presents its own problems. The richness of all the background that J.R.R. Tolkien crafted for Middle-earth is what drew generations of fans to the material in the first place.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
Of all the tasks before Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in bringing the epic trilogy to the screen, preserving that essence may have been the most challenging. But the adaptation worked because the trio didn’t stop at translating Tolkien’s concepts; they also took his prose word for word. Even scenes that were cut for time made it into the final cut through dialogue. These little Easter eggs reward readers, but never leave behind those coming to the story fresh.
Tom Bombadil, who appears early in the novel version of The Fellowship of the Ring and baffles lore experts, and one of the distinctive ents of The Two Towers, the (relatively) sprightly Quickbeam, are two characters who wound up cut from the movies. But Boyens, et al. honored them by slipping their dialogue into the mouth Treebeard - another guardian of nature. In addition to singing Quickbeam’s song (“O rowan mine!”), Treebeard also speaks aloud some narration from Tom Bombadil’s chapter, with his line about the “destroyers and usurpers!” who go about biting, breaking, and burning the pristine wilderness.
Tricks like that highlight just how much restructuring of the story Jackson had to do as a director to keep the story in the shape of a film trilogy rather than a novel trilogy. Tolkien’s books made use of few perspective characters and the occasional chapter of heavy exposition, an approach that just couldn’t work in the movies. Accordingly, a lot of great lines from the books couldn’t occur at the same point in the narrative, even if their characters didn’t get the axe (like poor Fatty Bolger). The writers overcame this challenge in a number of interesting ways, but always by showing love toward the language itself.
In some cases, Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh chose quiet moments where Tolkien’s prose could breathe, and better evoke the books’ bittersweet tone. Frodo’s lament to Gandalf about wishing he were not the one to live to see such times has become a memetic touchstone, especially during this past year of constant doom and gloom. Jackson plucked it out of an exposition-heavy chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring and found a quiet moment for it, as Gandalf and Frodo rest in Moria, a lull before a major swell of action. It’s not unlike another lull during the movies’ climactic siege of Minas Tirith, when Gandalf and Pippin take a breather and Gandalf soothes his fears about death. He actually sneaks in a line of narration from the very end of The Return of the King, describing the last thing Frodo sees aboard the ship as it bears him to the shores of Valinor: “white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Jackson and his co-writers also made a valiant effort to preserve the many songs and poems that pepper Tolkien’s work but that would have absolutely torpedoed the pacing of the movies. On his way into the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf sings the song that is so often reprised throughout the series, “The Road goes ever on and on…,” for instance. Particularly dramatic, too, is a poem of Rohan that begins “Where now are the horse and the rider?”, originally recited by Aragorn in The Two Towers as he, Legolas and Gimli arrive in the land of the horse lords. In the movies, Theoden delivers a portion of it in solemn voiceover over a montage of characters gearing up for the siege of Helm’s Deep. It’s a change that shows a deep understanding of the text, tying Theoden’s character to his culture, and in a way perfectly in line with its fatalistic theme.
Moments like that highlight both how the filmmakers changed character arcs and how they used those same sorts of callbacks to the books to evoke what couldn’t make it in. Aragorn’s arc in the movies, in particular, is different than in the books. On the page, he’s already accepted his destiny to become king of Gondor and defeat Sauron by the time the Fellowship leaves Rivendell. But since so much of that backstory is hidden in an appendix at the back of The Return of the King, working it into the movies without clunky flashbacks required some finesse.
The extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring includes one short scene that sets up a major callback to the novels for Aragorn’s character. In an early scene in Rivendell, he visits his mother’s grave. Readers would know that Aragorn’s mother lived a hard life, hiding from a dark lord bent on killing her son. And so, when Elrond visits Aragorn at the end of The Return of the King to deliver the sword Anduril (a scene that does not happen in the books in the same way or at the same time), it means even more than some viewers may know when he says “I give hope to Men” and Aragorn answers, “I keep none for myself.”
Those two lines are a paraphrasing of the poem Aragorn’s mother spoke to him the last time he saw her alive. Put in context with the extended edition scene by the grave, Elrond’s visit isn’t just handing off a plot device: He’s admonishing Aragorn to remember his duty.
It’s a triumph of the film adaptations that scenes like this sometimes feel like improvements on the original work. Even with all of the cutting, reshuffling, and repurposing of scenes and characters, the filmmakers found so many different ways to reference some of the best parts of what they had to otherwise leave out. That they did so using Tolkien’s own words shows the same genuine love for the source material that fans have had for nearly 70 years.